It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.
It was the Epoque of belief, it was the Epoque of incredulity.
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
We had everything before, us we had nothing before us
I could carry on where Dickens left off in the opening lines of A tale of Two Cities;
We could drive our cars freely, we polluted ourselves to death
We could wrap everything in clingfilm, we trashed the oceans
We ate meat everyday, we pumped up our carbon footprint
We continued to build suburbia, we created congestion
Charles Dickens writing about the 18th century could well have been writing about the recent events of the 21st-century. He was speaking of the time of the French revolution when the streets of Paris were reclaimed by the people. But we have just seen the streets of the entire planet being reclaimed without the need for the barricades. The french revolution resulted in lasting change from America to the Ancien régime, but will the same be said of the Covid-19 revolution? Will there be positive outcomes for our global village, after the coronavirus experience?
Has the knife gone deep enough to affect a lasting change?
Or as we jump back into our cars, will we revert to previous behaviour at the first opportunity?
This week I was in a discussion which included Harvard scientists about how pollution my have aggravated the affects of the coronavirus. The almost complete absence of pollution in the urban environment due to lock down has provided a rare opportunity to examine air quality.
Something we have all enjoyed and appreciated may be about to disappear unless we reclaim the streets.
Lockdown has accelerated some of the good we have talked about for decades but failed to act on, resulting in unexpected benefits. But these benefits will not last unless we develop new habits and plan things differently.
We need the streets back for the people.
Is it still considered ok to rack up carbon emissions in this way?
This is what happens when customers continue to travel out of town by car to buy processed food. A waste trail is left behind, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Volunteer organisations like City Harvest in London now supply recycled food waste from the supermarkets to the tune of 30 tonnes a week to redistribute it to where it is most needed.
Only last week I discovered that my local neighbourhood formally had up to 30 shops. Now, only one or two remain in the area. Take for example, a residential terraced property in the road I live in. It has an old shop sign embossed into it’s front facade. This business had been a dairy and until quite recently, delivered milk to the front door.
The word CIVITAS – relates to the civilising aspect of cities where encounter, engagement, debate and connection was always the purpose. This can be seen throughout history from Aristotle to speakers corner, where the public realm has always been far more than just getting from a to b.
But how will this happen if government and local authorities continue to carry on subsidising road building?
For example, multi story car parks and car based solutions are still being considered for town centres and cities. As long as good public transport is starved of investment and is relegated to a necessary evil, only suited to students and the elderly, how is anything going to change? Surely families and children should have as much right to use the buses for going to school as students going to collage. But the pricing structure often prevents this, so that for families, the only real option is to drive or take a cab. Unless these unbalanced situations change, it is likely that we will revert to life before coronavirus together with the congestion and poor air quality that went with it.
New habits, it is said can take from between 18 to 254 days to form. According to the 2009 study in the European Journal of social psychology, it ultimately depends on the habit in question.
As it turns out pleasurable habits form quicker than the more trying ones.
The smart thing would be to quickly identify and value the best things we have learnt from the pandemic period. Then we should intentionally turn them into the new habits for the future to create a better life for all, not least the future generations. Public transport has to be seen as an attractive alternative, not just an option for when all else fails.
Some countries have already embraced a new order for their cities and towns and are enjoying its fruits. Many are still struggling to move beyond the standard development models of yesteryear. Strasbourg embraced a new tram system in preference to an underground metro, specifically to deal with bad air quality. In this way they drove out the car drivers. They made the city accessible to all its citizens under the banner, ‘Reclaiming the Public Realm’ *
Governments of all shades need to get this quickly. If they don’t, we aught to take to the streets.
To facilitate social distancing, pavements need to be wider for the walkers. Restaurants will only be able to serve half their previous level of customers. This is economically unviable for most, so pouring out into the street with tables, chairs, booths and planting if not recreating the beach, as in our cartoon of the month. Oh yes and we need to leave a strip for the cyclists. Temporarily many of our narrower streets will have no room for cars. Or should this temporary become the new norm. Can we drive up air quality in place of driving cars.
Trams may not be the only solution and vehicles of one sort or another will always be required in rural areas and for business’s to thrive.
However the pendulum needs to swing in the opposite direction if we want to enjoy the best that cites can offer to all its citizens. Despite the suffering, COVID-19 is offering us this unique moment to cancel business as usual. Instead of this we should be opting for benefits that we never imagined could be possible.
The streets should be reclaimed for people!
I finish with apologies to monty python.
So what did the lockdown ever do for us?
It took our livelihoods away,
It stopped us going down the pub,
No more holidays,
No more shopping
No more fun
It took away our businesses,
It ransacked our bank accounts
It took away everything we ever had ….
….and what our fathers had
….and what our fathers fathers had
Oh yeah and what our fathers fathers fathers had…..
Okay Okay, don’t get carried away.
So what did the lockdown ever do for us?
It got rid of pollution in the cities?
Okay we got clean air then. That goes without saying doesn’t it?
But apart from clean air, what did lock down ever do for us?
We didn’t have to commute for miles on congested roads every morning?
But apart from clean air and no commuting, what did lock down ever do for us?
We could stay home and get to know our families?
We could exercise every day?
[And more interjections]
We could walk on the streets without getting mown down by cars?
We learnt how to do digital stuff
We learnt how to cook
We could hear the birds sing
We could grow vegetables
We didn’t have to go to offices with bad air-conditioning
We reduced our carbon footprint. In fact there’s quite a lot of things lockdown did for us, when you think about it!
okay okay, okay, but apart from………
Oh forget it, let’s change the subject.
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